That’s the message Barack Obama should glean from the trouncing he received last night in Pennsylvania. If he wants to be President, he first has to defeat Hillary Clinton in both North Carolina and, more important, in Indiana two weeks from now. To do that, he is going to have to behave less like Jay-Z, brushing dirt off his shoulders, and more like Michael Jordan, who would do whatever it took to eke out a victory.
Take that famous jump shot that Jordan lofted at the buzzer to give the bulls a W in the 1998 NBA championship series against the Utah Jazz. In order to get clear, Jordan roughly pushed Jazz defender Byron Russell out of his way, as can be clearly seen in any number of videos available on YouTube. It would have been called a foul if any other player had committed it, but this was Michael Jordan playing by his own rules. It didn’t matter how he won. He won. He was a winner.
That is how Obama must define himself in the upcoming primaries if he is really serious about becoming President. He is going to have to take off the gloves and defeat Clinton by any means necessary, including “going negative” in a very big way. He started to get with the game in the closing days of the Pennsylvania primary. But he must up the ante if he wants to win in Indiana, which the media seems likely to deem more significant than the contest in North Carolina, where he has a big lead in the polls.
He has to define Hillary Clinton as a lying (about being under sniper fire), scandal-tainted (rigged cattle futures, missing law firm records, White House “travel-gate”), ego-obsessed pol willing to steal from Karl Rove’s book of Republican dirty tricks for her own – not the Democratic Party’s – gain. Just as Clinton’s take-no-prisoners assault, featuring ads laced with frightening images of Osama Bin Laden and sabre-rattling threats to obliterate Iran, is a preview of how the Republicans will run against him in the fall, his campaign against her must be a rehearsal for the race he will run against John McCain, who will raise every issue Clinton has thrown at him and then some.
In his speech last night, Obama took the high road, looking beyond Clinton to seemingly engage McCain as though he had already locked up the Democratic nomination. The speech was tired and perfunctory. Being high-minded – yes, elite, if you will — won’t suffice. Hillary’s argument that Obama can’t carry enough of the white working class vote in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio to beat McCain is already gaining salience with superdelegates.
As one of my former colleagues at TIME magazine, Amy Sullivan, noted, “The most significant number coming out of Tuesday night wasn’t Clinton’s 10 point margin of victory, but 43. That’s the percentage of Clinton voters who say they would stay home or vote for McCain if Obama is the party’s nominee in November.” That translates to roughly one quarter of the Democratic electorate, a gap too large to be overcome with a coalition of African Americans, liberals and enthusiastic young people.
Winning elections is about both playing to a candidate’s strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of opponents. Obama has, so far, been a lot better at the former than the latter. He may not be able to get much support from white working class voters, but he can make Clinton so unattractive to them that they go fishing on election day. Cynical? Sure, but this is politics.
Fortunately for Obama, going negative against Clinton would not entail abandoning his principles or his honesty. There is no need to invent blots on record, as George W. Bush’s allies did when they “swift-boated” John Kerry. All he needs to do is remind people about her checkered history. To paraphrase Harry S. Truman’s famous quip when a supporter yelled, “Give them hell, Harry,” Obama should simply tell the truth about her, and she’ll think it’s hell.
Jigga plays it cool. Mike plays to win.